Shamanism is the name for a number of religious movements.

Originally, it was used by Europeans to describe different religious and magical movements they could observe with certain indigenous people in Siberia, from about the 17th century. In the 20th century, the word was also used to describe other, similar movements worldwide.

Shamans play a central role in these movements, as they can be in both worlds, this one, and the world of spirits.

  • Spirits exist. They have an important role, both for single people, and for society as a whole.
  • Shamans can talk to spirits.
  • There are good spirits, but there are also evil ones.
  • The shaman can treat sickness, caused by evil spirits.
  • Shaman can use special things and techniques to put themselves into a trance. Once in trance, they will get visions.
  • The Shaman’s spirit can leave their body and enter the spirit world to search for answers.
  • Shamans can use animals to help them.

Shamanism is different from animism. Unlike this kind of religion, it is not an organised movement.

Shamanism is a Spiritualistic system in tribal cultures characterized by non worldly realities in which the officiant, a shaman, searches for lost souls of the living, communes with totem spirits and spirits of the dead, and performs various supernatural feats. Above all, shamans are medical practitioners.

The term “shamanism,” from the Tungus term sâma-n (Tungus is an Altaic language spoken in Manchuria and northward), in its strictest sense refers to practices of Siberia and Central Asia; it is generalized to similar practices found elsewhere in the non-Western world. According to archaeological evidence, shamanic techniques are at least 30,000 years old.

A shaman’s tasks are related to some extent to social complexity. If a society (such as a tribal society) has only one type of magico-religious practitioner, it will be a shaman; as societies grow more complex, the shamanic role becomes differentiated, producing priests, sorcerers, mediums, witches and healers, besides shamans.

Shamanism bears many similarities to Western Mediumship. Both share a core set of beliefs that harks back to a primitive belief system called ANIMISM. Whereas Western mediums are generally female, however, shamans are typically male.

Traditionally, a person becomes a shaman according to heredity or by election by the “supernaturals.” The latter occurs as a serious illness, of which the initiate must heal himself. During the course of the illness, he learns how to access nonordinary realms, where he meets the spirits and souls of the dead that will assist him in his magical-spiritual work. In some cultures, shamans are called to their profession during vision quests, vigils in the wilderness in which attempts are made to receive one’s destiny from the supernaturals.

After receiving the calling, the shaman undergoes rigorous training under an elder shaman. He is initiated in a rite of symbolic dismemberment, death and resurrection; in some cases, he might literally be regarded as a ghost by the villagers.

The shaman’s helping spirits take many forms, including animals, birds, insects, fish, plants or spirits of the dead. Each spirit has a specific function and helps him in performing his duties. Shamans also may have a GUARDIAN SPIRIT.

When shamans are called on to perform their offices— primarily healing and divination—they enter their nonordinary reality through techniques such as drumming, rattling, chanting, dancing, fasting, sexual abstinence, sweat baths, staring into flames, concentrating on imagery or isolation in darkness. In some societies, the use of psychedelic drugs is employed.

Once he has entered this nonordinary reality, the shaman has Clairvoyance to see spirits and souls, and the mediumistic ability to communicate with them. He can travel to the heavens to act as intermediary to the gods or descend to the underworld to the land of the dead, where lost souls roam. The kidnapping or lost ways of the souls of the living are believed to be responsible for many kinds of illnesses. Only the retrieval of the souls can effect a cure (see SOUL LOSS). Other cures are effected by “sucking” out the disease or illness with the help of the shaman’s spirits.

Shamans, like some mediums, resort to sleight-of hand tricks, particularly in sucking out sicknesses. They produce objects such as stones and pieces of bone, which they say are responsible for the illness and then palm them to make them “magically” disappear. Some shamans contend that this sleight-of-hand has nothing to do with the real cure but is done only to provide “evidence” to the patient and witnesses that a cure has taken place.

Like Western Mediums, many shamans Demonstrate their powers at Séances, which take place in darkened quarters such as a tent. They may be bound at the hands and feet to prevent trickery. The Séance commences with singing. Phenomena of the spirits include spirit voices, Rappings and other noises, Poltergeist effects, shaking of the tent, movement of objects without contact,Levitations, handling of hot coals without injury, speaking in tongues (glossolalia) and the howling of animals, which are the “voices” of the spirit helpers.

The spirit helpers parallel the Western medium’s controls in terms of the assistance they provide the shaman; however, they are much more dictatorial and exert much more influence on their human being. Spirit helpers dictate to a shaman how he will dress, how he will live and what he will do. If he fails to follow their instructions, they may become unhappy with him and kill him, according to belief.

Another similarity between shamanic and Western Séances is the belief that to disturb the shaman/medium before the Séance is over, such as by turning on a light or interfering with the spirits, will jeopardize his or her life.

Differences also exist. Some shamans do not enter trance states during a Séance. In general, a Séance energizes and invigorates a shaman, whereas a Séance often exhausts a Western medium. The path to becoming a shaman is often long and painful, whereas it is seldom so for a medium. Shamans live outside the everyday life of their communities and are regarded as being part of another world. Some male shamans even spiritually change their sex and take men as their wives; they also have “supernatural husbands” in nonordinary reality. Western mediums generally carry on mainstream lives.

During the 18th-century Enlightenment, the Western public was fascinated by accounts of shamanism, and this fascination found its way into artistic works by composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and poet and dramatist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, among others. Goethe’s Faust, for instance, is a virtual catalog of Enlightenment knowledge and beliefs about shamanism.


  • Barnouw, Victor. “Siberian Shamanism and Western Spiritualism.” Journal of the American Society of Psychical Research 36 (1942): 140–68. Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964.
  • Flaherty, Gloria. Shamanism and the Eighteenth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • Halifax, Joan. Shaman: The Wounded Healer. New York: Crossroad, 1982.
  • Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. New York: Bantam, 1986.
  • Kalweit, Holger. Dreamtime and Inner Space: The World of the Shaman. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1984.
  • Nicholson, Shirley, comp. Shamanism. Wheaton, Ill.: Theosophical Publishing House, 1987.
  • Villoldo, Alberto, and Stanley Krippner. Healing States. New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1986.
  • Winkelman, Michael James. Shamans, Priests and Witches: A Cross-Cultural Study of Magico-Religious Practitioners. Anthropological Research Papers, No. 44. Tucson: Arizona State University, 1992.

The oldest system of Healing in the world, shamanism is prevalent in tribal cultures which, though isolated from one another, have developed beliefs and techniques with startling similarities. A shaman enters an ecstatic altered state of consciousness, which enables him to communicate with guardian and helping spirits and draw upon sources of enormous power. The primary purpose of shamanism is the healing of body and mind. It also is used for Divination and to ensure good hunts and prosperity for a tribe or village.

According to archaeological and ethnological evidence, shamanism has been practiced for some 20,000 to 30,000 years. It may be much older, perhaps as old as the human race. It is found all over the world, including very remote portions of the Americas, Siberia and Asia, Australia, northern Europe and Africa.

Shamanic systems vary greatly, but most share basic similarities. The shaman must function comfortably in two realities, the ordinary reality of the everyday, waking world, and the nonordinary reality of the shamanic state of consciousness. The nonordinary reality is attained in trance which varies from light to deep coma and enables the shaman to see and do things that are impossible in ordinary reality. Once in trance, the shaman enters the lowerworld by slipping into a hole or opening in the earth. In the lowerworld, he sees the cause of disease in a patient and knows its cure, and sees his guardian spirit and spirit helpers. He can shape-shift into these spirits and fly through the air (see metamorphosis). He performs his cures and can see into the future. When his shamanic work is done, he reemerges from the lowerworld back into ordinary reality. Shamans are also said to ascend to the sky in spirit boats or astride the spirits of sacrificed horses.

The nonordinary reality is as real to the shaman as is the ordinary reality. The things he sees are not hallucinations but are externalized. The shamanic state of consciousness is induced through drumming, rattling and dancing or, in some societies, by ingesting hallucinogens.

Most shamans are men, though women also can become shamans; some women shamans are extraordinarily powerful. In some cultures, shamans are involuntarily chosen by the spirits. They realize their calling in a transformational experience, often a serious illness that brings them close to death and is self-cured. In other cultures, persons with natural shamanic gifts are selected at a young age, trained and initiated (see Initiation).

The shaman must obtain a guardian spirit, which is the source of his spiritual powers. The guardian spirit also is called a power animal, tutelary spirit, totemic animal or Familiar. A common method of discovering and connecting with the guardian spirit is the solitary, allnight vigil outdoors. The guardian spirit usually manifests as an animal, bird, fish or reptile but may also appear in human form. It is both beneficent and beneficial and brings to the shaman the powers of an entire species. The shaman invites the guardian spirit into his body; it protects him from illness and from unfriendly forces in the lowerworld. Guardian spirits change over the years as the shaman’s needs change.

After a guardian spirit is acquired, healing and divination may be performed. Healing techniques vary. A shaman may collect spirit helpers, which are the causes and cures of illness. Spirit helpers are represented by plants, insects, small objects, worms and the like. When the shaman sees, in trance, the cause of an illness, he places one of these objects in the back of his mouth and one in the front. He then begins to “suck” the illness out of the body of the patient. The energy that causes the illness is absorbed by the spirit helpers in his mouth who protect the shaman from absorbing the illness himself. The helper in the back of the mouth acts as a backup, in case the illness gets past the helper in front.

In other techniques, the shaman descends to the lowerworld, or the realm of the dead, to bring back the soul of a patient or to retrieve a patient’s guardian spirit. Some shamans exorcise disease-causing spirits in Séancelike procedures or by invoking or cajoling them to leave the patient.

Sleight-of-hand tricks are sometimes used, but do not necessarily negate a healing.

Some traditions of contemporary Paganism and Witchcraft incorporate shamanic practices. most of these concern raising energy, Otherworld journeys and healing. Some Witches, such as Starhawk, consider Witchcraft a shamanistic religion because raising energy, Otherworldy contact and healing are fundamental to it. Some Pagans say the same about various forms of contemporary Paganism. Pagan/Wiccan shamanism fosters a closer connection to the Earth and plays a role in the environmental and ecological interests of many individuals. It also plays a significant role in the creation of healing therapies especially tailored to Pagan and Wiccan spirituality.


  • Eliade, mircea. Shamanism. revised and enlarged ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974.
  • Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. New York: Bantam, 1982.
  • Harvey, Graham. Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth. New York: New York University Press, 1997.
  • kalweit, Holger. Dreamtime & Inner Space: The World of the Shaman. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1984.


The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca – written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 1989, 1999, 2008 by Visionary Living, Inc.